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The Arab Spring: Getting It Right

May 24, 2012 by  


Center For The Study Of Islam and Democracy 13th Annual Conference

By Radwan A. Masmoudi, Ph.D., President, Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID)

Post-Arab spring political change and democratization, in the past year and a half, have been as beautiful and inspiring as they have been difficult and challenging. The destruction of an authoritarian regime, as daunting a task as it may seem, is always easier than the construction of a lasting democratic system, and we have seen this evidenced in the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt and their reverberations throughout the region. To shed light on the challenges of democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, and to highlight areas for progress and democratic consolidation, CSID organized its 13th Annual Conference on May 3, 2012, in Arlington, Virginia.

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Radwan Masmoudi, President of CSID, the moderator of the luncheon, introduced and welcomed the panel of four elected members of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly as the freely-elected representatives of the Tunisian people. Tasked with drafting the nation’s new Constitution and representing various parties and committees within the NCA, the delegates shed light on the progress being made and the plans moving ahead.

The conference took place a year after the eruption of popular uprisings, commonly known as the Arab Spring, and was designed as a summit for activists, researchers, academics, and leaders of political and civil society – from the United States and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The guiding question of this conference was simple: what can be done to help democracy succeed in the Middle East and North Africa?

Dr. Radwan Masmoudi and Dr. Tamara Sonn, President and Conference Program Chair of CSID respectively,  opened the conference, inviting the speakers and attendees alike to engage actively with the topics to be discussed, bearing in mind the incredible progress that has already been made.   Here are some highlights of the conference.

Jason Gluck, Director of USIP’s Constitution-Making Program, started by introducing his research on the process of reforming or re-writing a nation’s Constitution. In focusing his remarks on Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Gluck said that “these countries… are experiencing  challenges in negotiating and drafting new Constitutions because they missed the crucial first step of asking themselves, Why?” This primordial question, suggested Gluck, is important because it serves as a framework for establishing consensus on the core principles that unite the various political factions in their goal to create a new political order. In Egypt, for instance, the question on whether it ought to be elections or constitutional reform that comes first, which according to Gluck is a gross misstep; this question of sequencing is one that cannot be addressed without first creating consensus on the fundamental principles which will guide the democratic process. The situation in Tunisia, he said, has been brighter, though the Constituent Assembly has been operating much more by simple majority than by consensus, even with the recent decision by al-Nahdha to not include Sharia in the new Constitution. Coupled with the impulse to rush through the transition process in Libya, Gluck warned against the desire to sprint past hurdles before careful consideration of how to involve the populace in the process of drafting the new Constitutions.

Dr. Alfred Stepan, renowned theorist on democratization and comparative studies and Profess of Government at Columbia University, has studied around 20 cases of democratic transition throughout the world and has recently focused on Tunisia and Egypt after the revolutions in 2011. In his address, he pointed to his definition of successful democratic transitions, which are constituted by four requirements: first, there must exist sufficient agreement on the procedures to elect a representative government and write a Constitution; second, that government must have been elected via a free and popular vote, and seen as such by major political players; third, the government must not have to share power with any unelected groups or individuals (such as the military or religious leaders); and fourth, the government must have ultimate power in generating new policies. In Dr. Stepan’s assessment, Tunisia is the first and so far only Arab country to have achieved each of these milestones, and has thus successfully completed its transition to democracy in just under one year. This, however, does not mean that the Tunisian democracy has been sufficiently consolidated, as much work is left to be done in the years to come.

Radwan Ziadeh, of the Syrian National Council and Visiting Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, spoke about the centrality of Syria to the region which he suggests is the cause of the present turmoil and brutal violence that is plaguing its uprising.

Syrians, said Ziadeh, began at first comparing themselves to Tunisians with their peaceful and popular uprising, then compared themselves to Yemenis when Assad’s forces began to exact violence against civilians, but when violence continued and grew, Syrians compared themselves to Libyans. Now that no international troops or support has intervened to protect civilians from state violence, Syrians realized that “we are not Tunisia, we are not Egypt, we are not Yemen, we are not Libya, we now compare ourselves to Bosnia,” given the almost exclusively one-sided violence taking place.

Meherzia Laabidi, Vice President of the Tunisian NCA, began the luncheon discussions by noting upon the unique history of Tunisia as a “country of exception; it’s an exceptional country.” With specific reference to the role of religion in Tunisian society, Laabidi explained that Islam arrived in Tunisia not by military armies, “but armies of scholars.” This unique history has framed the cultural, thereby the political, history of the country, which began on the basis of innovation and high learning. With regards to the status of women and equal protection of all religions under the law, Laabidi called attention to two cases – the Kairouan marriage contract of roughly ten centuries ago, and Ahmed ibn al-Dhiaf’s article on equal protection for all people of the early 19th century – that epitomize the course of Tunisian history as one of incredible progress and equality. Laabidi drew upon these and numerous other examples to say that Tunisians today are inheritors of these efforts and traditions,” and must live up to their own remarkable heritage in paving the road for Arab democratic efforts elsewhere. These Tunisian scholars and landmark legislative pieces set the framework for the present pacts united under respect for human rights, respect for the Arab-Islamic identity, respect for religious freedom, and respect for women’s rights. What all of this means, said Laabidi, is that “we are starting to draft our new Constitution while having all this heritage with us.”

Mouldi Riahi, Head of the Ettakatol party bloc in the Tunisian NCA, followed Mrs. Laabidi in hopes of emphasizing key purposes of the tri-partite coalition government. Riahi explained that the desire to create and sustain this coalition stem from those who had long served as the true opposition to the authoritarian rule of the Ben Ali regime, and who were united under common principles and aspirations of basic democratic ideals. Regrettably, Riahi noted the present-day coalition and opposition within the Tunisian NCA, in spite of the desire to create a consensus and work in a spirit of national unity, rather than partisanship. “We promised the Tunisian people to strive to complete this transitory period of our budding democracy in a year or a year and a half, at the latest,” said Riahi. Moving forward in building a broad and genuine political consensus and working to construct a constitution of which all Tunisians can be proud, all the coalition parties embarked  from a shared platform that covers areas such as “how we view democracy, the Constituent bodies, the separation of powers, relations between the different branches, checks and balances between the different branches, and the unchanged rights enshrined in the Personal Status Code.”

Dr. Anwar Haddam, President and a co-founder of the Movement for Liberty and Social Justice (MLJS), in Algeria, discussed the “cosmetic political reforms” that have been instituted in Algeria as a means of quelling popular uprisings before they can become a significant threat to the regime. “As the dictatorship is gone,” said Haddam, “the system is really still there,” and this is a persistent problem in Algeria which has made it extremely difficult for the wave of protests and demonstrations to take hold there. Speaking specifically about the planned Parliamentary elections on May 10, Haddam conveyed a general skepticism and overwhelming frustration that may lead to a boycott of those elections. To Haddam, the main problem in Algeria, and “the elephant in the room,” is the civilian-military relationship, which has been the cause of past conflicts for the past 50 years as well as present challenges on the road to genuine reforms. Because of the expected mass boycott of the upcoming elections, Haddam says that Algeria could reach a dead-end, so a summit of Algerian opposition leaders in the coming few days hopes to reorganize and propose a comprehensive plan for democratic reforms that will be both appealing to the Algerian people and acceptable to the current military regime.

Ambassador Mohamed Salah Tekaya, Ambassador of Tunisia to the United States of America, began his address by remembering the 12th Annual CSID Conference, which tried to capture and understand what had happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and assess prospects for the future.

This year, Ambassador Tekaya says “now, in Tunisia, we can say that the prospects are bright for democracy,” noting the incredible electoral and legislative achievements over the past year and a half. Tekaya expressed a deep pride in the fact that the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly was able to elect a President, Prime Minister, and President of the NCA each from a different political party, representing the diversity of political opinions in the country that nonetheless remain committed to the goal of true democratization. “Nine months after the revolution, Tunisia had moved from a tightly-controlled regime to a power-sharing regime,” and this is already an incredible step in the right direction, said Tekaya.

Ambassador William Taylor, Director of the Office for Middle East Transitions at the U.S. Department of State, stressed the admiration and support for the Tunisian experience that the United States government feels, which led Secretary of State Clinton to create a bureau in the State Department that works specifically on supporting the democratic transitions in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. To provide the best possible overview, Ambassador Taylor gave concrete projects in which the U.S. is currently enacting, or looking to begin in the coming few weeks and months, especially in the fields of financial assistance in order to lend immediate and most useful support to address the short-term needs of the Tunisian government; the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for instance, has executed a $100 million cash transfer to the Tunisian government to help shore up the budget concerns and interests of the Tunisian government. In the summer, Taylor said the United States will be unveiling plans for loan guarantees “in the neighborhood of $300 million, to enable the [Tunisian government] budget to be balanced.” With respect to access to greater economic capital, Taylor explained that the United States plans on creating “an enterprise fund, a U.S.-government capitalized fund”

that will be comprised entirely of private sector investors, both American and Tunisian, who will be able to make use of U.S.-government funds to support private enterprise throughout Tunisia. Taylor expressed the firm belief of the United States that it is in its best interest to help ensure the success of the democratic transitions in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), supported the remarks made by Ambassador Taylor that detailed U.S. plans to provide assistance to Tunisia, but also maintained that the true elements for success must come from within. Gershman admitted that one of the best investments NED has made has been in CSID, which is an organization that has been working tirelessly throughout the MENA region to advance a vision for democracy, “a vision which is now an accepted vision.” Although there has been a wave of pessimism since the revolutions that is a direct result of the incredible difficulties that lie ahead, Gershman insists that we must realize that “the glass is half full, not half empty; we are at the threshold of a new period… and one shouldn’t reach judgments too quickly.”

What is critically important now, said Gershman, is for the transition to be supported by way of direct financial assistance such as the cash transfer mentioned by Ambassador Taylor. Tunisia is leading the way for MENA, he said, and it must succeed because “you need an Arab model for democracy” due to the widespread and unstoppable awakening that has happened on a grassroots level all around the region. Gershman emphasized the importance of a recent talk given by Rached Ghannouchi, President of the al-Nahdha party in Tunisia, in which he described the space that must be allowed for religion and politics to flourish independently, albeit influenced by one another. Furthermore, it is important for the United States to provide assistance to civil society in Egypt and Libya, and to hold all political actors everywhere to the rules of the democratic game. With respect to the dire situations in Syria and Bahrain,   Ultimately, said Gershman, the United States needs to realize, in distributing assistance, that there must be a long-term plan, that what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa is “a historical transformation that is going to take generations,” and the United States and other allies must be prepared to support the process every step of the way.

Conclusion

By the end of the day, after listening to, debating, and engaging with over 30 very compelling researchers, university professors, activists, and politicians, the nearly 150 conference attendees were ready for the final break. Although it had been a long and arduous day, it was also incredibly insightful, and struck precisely the right balance between theory and practice for which the conference Planning Committee had been aspiring.

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), in its over 13 years of experience in promoting democracy in the Arab and Muslim World, has finally succeeded in at least convincing the MENA populations of the worth and value of democracy, and its compatibility with Islam and Islamic values, and for this we are incredible proud, Much work remains ahead, but there is also room for celebration at the remarkable strides that have already been made. Once the right amount of international financial and political assistance can be provided, giving the political arena ample space for reasoned and deliberate improvements, we can finally say that democracy has at last been secured in the Arab World, for the first time in history.

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